There’s no canoeing or lighting campfires (at least for those of you inside!), but you can still go to camp – or rather camp can come to you.
New England’s camping and retreat ministry is adapting to the new normal of COVID-19 by bringing “that camp essence” to kids and adults with a variety of online activities including crafts, virtual lunch gatherings, and spiritual retreats.
Wanakee United Methodist Center in New Hampshire and Camp Aldersgate in Rhode Island both offer traditional summer camp for kids.
But Wanakee Executive Director James Tresner says he understands that families are not thinking about summer right now.
“Camps specialize in engaging kids, and we know that's what parents need more than ever,” Tresner said. “Right now, what we can do best for our community is create space for finding connection – just like we do in the summer.”
They began “Wanakee from Home” with a photo scavenger hunt on March 18, and have been offering 7-10 activities a week since March 23.
Aldersgate Program Director Megan Lynch said that when thinking about launching their Virtual Camp, reproducing what it feels like to be at camp was just as important as the activities themselves.
“For me, it's trying to make sure the camp essence or the camp feeling transfers from our property onto a computer,” said Lynch.
That’s not to say the activities are not important as kids remain home from school, she said: “It's also just to remind our parents, ‘Hey, you're doing a great job,’ let us try to help you out a little bit.”
Aldersgate’s Virtual Camp started April 10, and uses a combination of videos and live virtual gatherings that include science activities, crafts, yoga, and virtual lunches.
Jay said he sees the potential of online offerings even after the restrictions are lifted, but they will need to work out some logistics.
“We just need to figure out how you make it work – can you do a live workshop or a live retreat and have it online at the same time? Or do we make it simply that everyone participates online? Or can you do a hybrid version? Those are things that we're going to probably experiment with as we go through the through the season,” he said.
In the meantime, while there are no in-person gatherings, Rolling Ridge has begun a video series called “Take Your Time Tuesday.”
“We thought that by providing a weekly video on spiritual practices, it would give folks the opportunity to remain spiritually centered and grounded in faith during this time,” Jay said.
Watch the first in the series on nature contemplation featuring Jay.
For now, rather than trying to offer full retreats online, Rolling Ridge has worked with the presenters to create shortened “taste of” versions – 90 minutes or so – on the topics already on the schedule such as “Cultivating Hearts for Discernment” and “Time Management on Purpose.”
These online retreats are free, but Jay said participants have been very generous in offering donations to help cover costs.
He said that he thinks people are deeply appreciative of the chance to connect in this time of social isolation – even if it’s just on a computer screen. Meeting online with Rolling Ridge’s book discussion group (they are reading “The Divine Dance” by Richard Rohr) was where Jay saw this clearly.
“When we gather together online you can tell that there was an emotional hunger for community … you could see it on people's faces; you know they wanted to be there,” he said. “And they recognize that yes, we need to close, but there was that emotional sense of wanting to simply give an embrace, which we were not able to do.”
“[Missing] that community aspect is the hardest thing about the separation right now,” he said.
For Lynch, figuring out how to adapt activities has been a challenge, but not an unwelcome one.
“We’ve been going back over the curriculum from last year and seeing what the campers really enjoyed and trying to make that happen on a virtual platform,” she said.
The review process is one that happens every year, she said, when she and the staff consider: “How could I make it better? How can I make it bigger? Now, I still think in that process, but it’s ‘how do I put it online?’ So that has been a fun challenge for me.”
They directors admit they are still figuring this out as they go along.
The online guitar lesson didn’t really work, Tresner said, but other offerings have translated well – such as the camp’s Harry Potter game; and it was a camp staffer who worked out how to do it online.
Both Lynch and Tresner say an important consideration is making sure that activities use materials that folks are likely to have at home already and that an adult is around to supervise.
How to serve high school students, who need a bit more than just activities, remains a challenge, Tresner said.
“We’re trying to figure out ways to authentically have places for them to have fun and connect and change their routine up in positive ways, and then give them the camp experience that they that they love,” he said.
Wanakee’s social lunch was a highlight, Tresner said, because it appealed to the camp community as a whole.
“We talk about how we are intergenerational; that’s something that we've identified as a really important facet of what makes Wanakee unique and what makes our community special,” he said.
The lunch included a six-year-old camper as well as the parents of some of the 20-something staff facilitators.
“I thought we would have to segment by age group, but we didn't have to; it was a really fun hour, because it mirrored what it’s like to be in the dining hall – as much as you can online,” he said.
Both Lynch and Tresner say that camp counselors have been very involved in coming up with ideas and using their unique skills to lead the online sessions.
“I love it,” Lynch said. “My staff are very excited to jump in and they're like, ‘yeah, we want to do this for our campers.’ And I'm like, ‘that’s what we’re doing it for.”
Tresner said directors should definitely ask current and recent staff to help out.
“I think [seeing] their names and having their enthusiasm will motivate and get campers excited
to join in,” he said. “Having more than one adult is safer, but also it makes it more fun and easier to lead a conversation.”
Even campers are taking on the presenter role.
Ten-year-old Grace led a session on rock art. She’s been painting rocks and selling her work at famers’ markets and craft fairs for a couple of years, Tresner said (she’s saving for a car), and on April 3 she shared her skills via Zoom.
“It was awesome because it was a camper-led,” Tresner said. “I mean that's how summer camp is, right? A camper teaching campers and staff.”(See photo at left.)
All three said they can see online offerings becoming a part of their ministries even folks are allowed to come to the camps in person.
“I started out saying that we specialize in engaging with kids, and we're seeing that there's no reason that we should really consign that to the summer months,” Tresner said. “I definitely think bringing campers together online, you know, we've learned the value in that.”
It can also be a way to reach a group that the camp has always tried to serve: young adults. For many of them, Tresner said, the camp functions as their church community once they leave their hometowns for college and beyond.
“We’ve done different in-person events over the last decade or so trying to serve [young adults], but because people are spread out, it has never gotten a huge amount of traction,” Tresner said. “But this is has created the epiphany of ‘wait, we could just do this online.’”
Jay agrees that a wider reach is definitely an advantage.
“It does allow people to be able to connect from a distance … so that will hopefully allow us to be able to expand our community and our network,” Jay said. “And I think the thing is that people are now getting more familiar with making those online connections, relating with people across a device … Now that people are getting more familiar with it, I think that there may be more interest [in online offerings].”
Still, they are all looking forward to welcoming people back to their sites.
“You know we are thankful and appreciative of for people standing with us during these challenging times,” Jay said.